His own best hope
Utah college student protects thousands of acres by monkey-wrenching a federal auction of oil and gas leases
It seemed another environmental battle had been lost, but Tim DeChristopher lit a tinderbox no one expected.
In the December snow, a huddle of solemn protesters stood before the doors of Salt Lake City’s Bureau of Land Management office. Inside, more than 100,000 acres of American redrock wilderness were up for auction to a room of oil and gasmen.
“I just knew I had to do more,” said De Christopher, recalling that day.
With no particular strategy in mind, the 27-year-old University of Utah senior stepped from the crowd and passed though the building’s doors. Once inside, he presented only a driver’s license before receiving a red bidding paddle with the black No. 70. He then signed documents acknowledging the federal crime of making “false, fictitious or fraudulent statements” during a government auction; and in his red down parka, DeChristopher took a seat among the energy insiders and prepared to bid.
The CN&R caught up with DeChristopher recently at Nevada City’s Wild & Scenic Environmental Film Festival, where he talked about his experience, raising an audience to its feet.
He explained how six weeks prior to the auction, with all eyes on the general election, the BLM made a discreet announcement, putting 400,000 acres of land on the block. President Barack Obama’s transition chief, John Podesta, called the ensuing review period a “rush job,” and a bipartisan contingent of conservation groups, archaeologists, business owners, anglers, hunters, and the National Parks Service voiced objections.
This outcry led the BLM to scale back the remaining lands, including tracts beside the Arches and Canyonlands national parks. But on Dec. 19, despite the controversy, parcels comprising 149,000 acres were going to the highest bidder.
“I went there with the intent of acting as if I wasn’t helpless,” said De Christopher, with an irrepressible smile. “I was acting as if I had a role to play in our government, even if everything around me seemed to indicate that wasn’t true. I think that’s why I was able to see the opportunity.”
At first, DeChristopher simply drove up the bids—but then he began to win. The more he won the more he stood out. Eventually he defiantly kept his paddle in the air. By the time he was approached by BLM officials, he had been awarded 13 parcels comprising 22,000 acres—land that conservation groups had specifically sought to preserve.
With no intention of paying the $1.8 million price tag, and fully aware of his crime, DeChistopher has no regrets.
“In this system, if we can’t get to a place of a livable future, and if we want to be effective, we have to work outside the system we are in,” he said. “I had to be willing to accept the consequences, and I knew those consequences were far less than if I had done nothing at all.”
With the bleak forecasts of climate science, DeChristopher is convinced he’s living in an age of last chances. Like countless others, he’s already signed petitions, walked in demonstrations, removed invasive species, and sat with his congressional representatives. Yet he hadn’t reached the point where environmentalists put everything in—including themselves.
DeChristopher notes that his mind turned to action after he heard Terry Root—a Nobel Prize-winning scientist of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control—personally apologize for the failure of her generation. He also started to see the environmental movement as a half-hearted attempt at a leap it was not prepared to make.
“It’s as though people are saying, ‘We know we can jump 30 feet, so let’s just do that,’ “ said DeChristopher. “But for those of us left in 2050 it won’t matter that civilization collapsed because of Dick Cheney’s big ‘F you’ to the future, or because of Obama’s warm-hearted compromise. What will matter is that we didn’t try hard enough.”
America’s response to this modern act of nonviolent monkey-wrenching has been clear. As DeChristopher puts it, “When we stand up, we never stand alone.” After full days of interviews with news sources ranging from the local weeklies to the Daily Kos, CBS Nightly News, National Public Radio, and Democracy Now!, DeChristopher’s story has reached the masses.
While the U.S. Attorneys Office has thus far remained quiet, Patrick Shea, DeChristopher’s pro-bono attorney and, ironically, a former BLM director during the Clinton administration, has instructed his client to start a fund-raising effort to help legitimize his bids and further secure the lands. Within two weeks, he generated more than $45,000 through a Web site, Bidder70.org.
BLM hasn’t responded to DeChristopher, and he speculates his unprecedented move is why. Some expect the agency to put the lands back up for bid, so, for now, the fate of the 13 purloined tracts remains uncertain.
In the meantime, DeChristopher hopes he’s motivated others to see their own chance and act.
“In order for my actions to be relevant, it needs to be evident this was not the act of one person, but the tip of an iceberg.”